A gem called Jahanara Kajjan

Jahanara Kajjan.   | Photo Credit: 25dfr kajjan1

Here is a peep into the artistic and personal life of Jahanara Kajjan, a forgotten actor and a singing star of the 1930s.

Hailed as the reigning queen of the stage, the glamorous movie actor, the trained singer, the fashionable modern girl, and the trendsetter, Jahanara Kajjan or Kajjan Bai, better known as Miss Kajjan was many a splendored personality. No wonder, in her heyday she was saluted as the ‘Lark of Hindi cinema’ and the ‘Beautiful Nightingale of Bengal Screen’. As a young lad in Lahore, I dimly remember, seeing her in Madan Theatres’ “Laila Majnu (1931). I recall its roaring publicity through splash of posters and eye-catching hoardings all over the city with dazzling pictures of Miss Kajjan. The novelty of Talkies was still fresh and cinema houses attracted big crowds, more so when films were packed with songs. “Laila Majnu” featuring Miss Kajjan and Master Nissar, the most popular singing pair of the stage was a spectacular success. I vaguely remember, a scene from the film, where Majnu (Nissar) looking for Laila (Kajjan) in the wilderness sings Laila Laila Pukarun Mai Ban Mein, Laila Pyari Basi More Man Main. “I am crying for Laila in the jungle when the beloved Laila is residing in my heart”.

Those days, there were hardly any film magazines and the practice of publishing spicy interviews of stars was still a couple of decades away. There is a mention of Kajjan by Kathryn Hanson, a leading scholar of South Asian theatre history in her book “Stages of Life” (2011). Jahanara Kajjan (1915-1945) is pronounced there as ‘Popular singing actress, daughter of the courtesan Suggan and the Nawab of Bhagalpur’. There is a question mark on her date of birth since no authentic information is available. This applies practically to all female artistes from the professional class, who turned famous as theatre and cinema actors. However, the circumstantial evidence culled from Kajjan’s stage and cinema career in the late 1920s and early ’30s and also some reference to her love affairs during that period leads us to conjecture that she was born sometime around 1910.

Kajjan belonged to a family of professional artistes, who carried the tag of tawaifs or courtesans. They were also invited by the princely courts and aristocracy to perform at their private mehfils. With their refined manners they provided stimulating company to the male elite. An established code of conduct ruled out marriage in their profession but they were allowed to have a liaison with a chosen patron. Kajjan’s mother Suggan apparently had one such relationship with her father.

The anti-nautch campaign at the beginning of the 20th Century denigrated the singing and dancing profession. Some, among them, became gramophone singers or theatre stage actors. Kajjan received education at home and even learnt English. Well versed in Urdu literature, she wrote poetry under pen name “Ada” and some of her poems were published in Urdu magazines. She received intensive training in Hindustani classical music from Ustad Hussain Khan of Patna. Noting her mastery of ragas, her mellifluous voice and also her charming looks, she was hired by a theatre company at Patna. She is said to have performed on stage for three days at a fee of Rs.250 per show. She enchanted the audience with her golden voice. This paved the way to her joining Alfred Company owned by Madan Theatres of Calcutta. According to Fida Hussain, a Parsi theatre legend, “He worked with actress Jahanara Kajjan becoming her director and leading man”. Kajjan attained name and fame as a very popular singer and actor of the stage.

The advent of talkies in 1931 brought a revolution in the entertainment scene. The phenomenal success of the first talkie “Alam Ara” in March 1931 inspired a number of producers to make their “all talking, singing, dancing films”. Madan Theatres of Calcutta, were already in the field and were only a few weeks behind when they hit the screen with “Shirin Farhaad” based on the stage play scripted by the renowned playwright Agha Hashar Kashmiri. “Shirin Farhad” beat “Alam Ara” as it was more refined technically and featured 42 songs by Kajjan and Nissar, already popular singing pair of the stage. The film was a tremendous success across India with Kajjan emerging as the first superstar of Hindi cinema. It is said that a tongawala in Lahore pawned his horse to see “Shirin Farhad” 22 times. It was followed by another super hit “Laila Majnu”, featuring the same duo Kajjan and Nissar. Another film that created history was “Indrasabha” based on the play written by Agha Hassan Amanat, the court poet of Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Awadh. Loaded with 71 songs, the film still holds the world record as “film with most number of songs”. The film with duration of three and half hours (211 minutes) was entirely in verse and Kajjan sang several songs, ensuring its roaring success all over the country.

Some of the most popular numbers sung by Kajjan were — “Toone to mora man har leeno more banke saanwaria (Oh my dearest you have captivated my heart); “Chaman ko yun mere saqi ne maikhana bana diya (My wine server has turned the garden into a tavern); Kab se khadi hun terey dwar, bula le mohe balam re (My love please call me as I have been waiting at your door for so long). Some of her other memorable movies were “Bilwamangal”, “Shakuntala”, “Alibaba aur Chalis Chor”, “Aankh ka Nasha”, “Zehari Saanp”, etc.

By mid 1930s, the early enthusiasm for song-dramas, mythological stories and Persian love tales was wearing off and many film producers were forced to close shop, Madan Theatres among them. The classical numbers sung by the likes of Kajjan were losing their appeal and so was her theatrical acting style. She failed to receive any offers from the new producers. A wealthy woman, she stayed on in Calcutta, but after a couple of years with depleting resources, she was compelled to move to Bombay. Her Parsi connection, especially with Sohrab Modi, the doyen of Parsi theatre, helped her to get some acting assignments there. Kajjan’s career in Bombay was short-lived from 1941 to 1944, during which she appeared in six marginal films, with the exception of Sohrab Modi’s “Prithvi Vallabh”. Further, she was given only minor roles and got little chance to display her singing calibre.

She lived a lavish life at Calcutta. Fond of pets, she even had two tiger cubs for some time. Kajjan was cited as a fashionable modern girl. A studio portrait of late 1920s shows her wearing makeup, ear rings, nose pin with finger waived hair, dressed in a sari with laced blouse. This very photograph was carried in an advertisement for face powder and hair products by “The Crisis (New York) 1928”. Kajjan had learnt western dancing and was a regular visitor to Calcutta Club, mixing freely with the elite gentry. On a personal front, she had a colourful life, with roaring love affairs with many of her co-stars. Fida Hussain, her theatre director and co-star openly speaks about the ups and downs of his romantic relationship with her. She was also intimately involved with Najmul Hassan, a very handsome actor of his time, who landed at New Theatres, Calcutta after being sacked by Bombay Talkies for his notorious affair with the leading star Devika Rani. There is little information about her personal life in Bombay, where she passed away unsung in 1945.